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Moore: Are Mariners showing reasons to believe they can contend in 2020s?

J.P. Crawford has shown why the Mariners believe him to be their shortstop of the future. (AP)

At the All-Star break, the Mariners are 39-55. Since the 13-2 start, they’re 26-52, on a pace to go 67-95 for the season.

Inside Mariners’ farm system: What is working and where they are thriving

But we’re not supposed to focus on their record because it’s a step-back season in which the emphasis is on the development of younger players who will presumably be the headliners on contending teams in the future.

What have you seen from the younger players on the major-league team that makes you feel like the Mariners can compete for a World Series title in the 2020s? For me, it pretty much starts with J.P. Crawford and ends with Daniel Vogelbach. Crawford looks like he could be a good shortstop for years to come, and he’s closer to being a sure thing than Vogey, who has yet to show the ability to hit against left-handed pitchers, reducing his chances of being a full-time designated hitter.

Marco Gonzales and Mitch Haniger are expected to be the cornerstones, but I’m not sold on either one. Gonzales has been inconsistent, looking highly effective some nights and like a batting practice pitcher on others. Haniger was hitting .220 and striking out a ton when he went on the injured list last month with a ruptured testicle. You certainly feel bad for the guy now, but before he got hurt, Haniger wasn’t producing like he did last year, raising questions about his status as a keeper. Yet I’m not that worried about Haniger – if he falters, the Mariners have other players who could be the right fielder or center fielder down the road.

I’d call Yusei Kikuchi, Omar Narváez and Domingo Santana ‘tweeners. They’ve done enough and are young enough to think they could be around for pennant races next decade but are also flawed enough to think they might not be part of the team’s future plans.

Then when you look at the up-and-comers in the farm system, the Mariners have several who project prominently such as Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, Kyle Lewis, Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield, Jake Fraley and Evan White. Besides Dunn and Sheffield, who has improved since being demoted to Double-A Arkansas, there are other pitchers with promising minor-league stats.

Individually, you can find players who could be All-Stars for years to come or at least serviceable at the major-league level. And it’s easy enough to think about a contending Mariners team when it comes to position players. I’m probably getting ahead of myself and being too cynical, but I just wonder about the rotation. The bullpen, you can figure that out, or at least that’s what everyone always says, even though the Mariners’ relievers this year have proven otherwise.

Quite honestly, I don’t even try to keep up with who’s in the Mariners’ bullpen anymore. Why would you? Whoever they picked up from San Diego will be DFA’d next week and replaced by Just Another Guy who was DFA’d by the White Sox, only to be released in August and replaced by another no-namer that another team got rid of. But maybe GM Jerry Dipoto is just getting some practice in for when it really matters in the 2020s.

Right now I just don’t see an effective starting rotation coming together in the near future, and there are two negative things about that:

• 1) Mediocre starters produce mediocre results and fail to end what will eventually be a 20-year streak of missing the playoffs.

• 2) Mediocre starters will cause the Mariners to continue employing this “opener” nonsense, a band-aid approach that won’t get them anywhere in spite of what the analytics say.

You tell me who the five starters will be in 2021 when they’re expected to contend. I’ll go with Gonzales, Kikuchi, Dunn, Sheffield and a big-money free-agent acquisition. Maybe your rotation will include another minor-league pitcher such as Ljay Newsome or someone else. But with my projected starters, do you see that being a competitive bunch? I don’t either. There are some candidates to be a No. 2 starter, but I don’t see a No. 1 or an ace in that group. They all look more like 3’s, 4’s and 5’s. Then again, my glass is rarely half-full.

There’s a chance that Gonzales, Kikuchi and Sheffield are just going through some growing pains, and in 2021 I’ll look back and wonder why I was pessimistic about them in 2019. In the second half of the season, I’ll pay most of my attention to those three starters to see if progress is being made.

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